Why failure is easier than success

It’s easy to psych yourself out of doing something that scares you. Then you can talk yourself out of success. I am probably a master at this, only because I fear the reprisals and I fear change. But I need to ask myself: do I fear my body or my mind?

Fear of the Dark

Can you outrun your mind? Do you need to? (Photo credit: stuant63)

I like to succeed, much like everyone else. I am willing to put in the effort in my running (training, time, sleep, nutrition, dedication) but when it comes to the actual race day, I am lacking a little in the discipline of self-affirmation and actualization. I’ve heard it said that the Ironman Triathlon is the three events you compete in (swim, bike, run) as well as the discipline of nutrition. (Everyone knows how bad it feels to run on a queasy stomach). There is also the idea that mental strength is the fifth discipline, and probably the one in that competition that determines your completion rate.

If you train well and train smart for any kind of endurance event your chances of finishing will be pretty high, barring injury. However, a strong and positive mental focus will handle much more than what you gain from hours of exertion and eating well. The ability to draw on your mental strength is what leads you to success.

A few years ago I hired a running coach to train for a half-marathon. I had a program and I had goals. I ran a lot, and I ran hard, and I ran all my runs alone. I missed running with my group, but this was the program and I was going to run my fastest half-marathon distance yet. As the weeks went on, I got tired. I was tired of all of it, but I had a goal and I was still determined. I was also overwhelmed and scared. I also probably over-trained.

By the morning of race day, I was in tears and almost throwing up. My nerves were shot and I ran my slowest race ever. Ever. I had pretty much given up by the time I stood in line for the start gun. I really did contemplate just stepping to the side, letting everyone else go by me, and heading home. No one but me would care.

I got scared of completely giving in to failure, so I ran. Some kind stranger encouraged me to run the last kilometer of the race. Who WALKS in their last kilometer? I did. I was having a tantrum with myself and wanted to prove that I could do it, but I was not up for the challenge of success. I thought that if I ran my fastest race and succeeded in my goals, there would be more training, frustration and unattainable challenges at the next one to try improve this time.  I gave up to save myself from those fears.

Success means giving up some perceptions of you. You have to believe you can succeed, and part of that is giving up the belief that you will fail. Failure is an easy mental state (low effort) but to give that up takes some good mental focus. You have to give up the stories that you ‘can’t’ and that it’s ‘too hard’ and all those other easy excuses. You would have to commit to believing in yourself and trusting that you are someone capable of this greatness. You have to believe that both your body (your training) and your mind (will over reason) can.

I run and train with some pretty fast runners now. I worry that I won’t keep up to them, or that after all our training I won’t be strong enough mentally to do what I hope for in a race situation. I probably use these runners to distract myself, another excuse not to be more of myself. These runners have all had faster times in races than I have, but all of my times have continued to improve. That, in itself, is a huge accomplishment for me. I have posted Personal Bests that even 2 years ago I thought were unattainable. My perceptions are changing.

We can say that all we want to do in a race is to finish. I think there is a caveat in that. We can walk a race and finish. Or we can finish giving it the strength from all our training hours, the most heart, and the biggest smile we can. For that one day in our life it will mean so much. We will remember it, however it turns out. I think the most important measure is that we made a choice. We choose to see ourselves as succeeding.

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2 thoughts on “Why failure is easier than success

  1. Excellent post! What a great story about getting a coach for your half marathon and being so stressed at the start. Being afraid of success is such a mixture of conflicting emotions. When I qualified for Boston, I knew nothing was going to stop me from running the best race of my life. I stayed strong and mentally tough right up to the end. My thought as I crossed the finish line, though, was, “Oh sh*t, this means I have to train for Boston now.” Like you, I trained hard, and all I focused on was getting faster and stronger–because it was BOSTON. I was scared. I was over trained.

    I got sick two days before the race. Walking around town, seeing all the runners with their jackets engraved with multiple years of running Boston, I felt out of place, like I didn’t deserve to be there. Yeah, I was sick, but the bottom line was: I didn’t feel ready, and I didn’t want to be there. At the start line, I felt completely overwhelmed and intimidated. At mile two, with a sinus infection and bronchitis, I wondered if I would even finish. I did, but with a million people watching every footstep on the sidelines, every time I had to stop and walk, I was miserable. I felt like a loser.

    In hindsight, I wish I could do it again. Even sick, I should have enjoyed myself more and not thought about what everyone back home would think if I didn’t do as well as they expected. I felt like I let everyone down. I think when we focus so much on our finish time, when we let our competitiveness get the best of us, we lose the most. It shouldn’t really be about “failing” or setting a new personal record. It should be more about doing your best on that given day, even if your best is only crossing the finish line.

    • Hi Angela,
      Thanks for *your* great thoughts. Good to hear of your experiences. I think this idea of elusive “success” is pretty universal (especially among runners). It’s so hard to let go of comparisons and finish times and just trust where we are, on any given day.

      We forget that we are doing this because we are being active and having fun.

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